Terror Is A Network - And The Network Is You

By JJ King, 10 March 2002

What happens when the ‘network of terror’ meets the ‘network society’? The US military reaches for its strategic gurus. JJ King unpicks the latest thinking on asymmetric warfare in an age of ‘full spectrum dominance’

'What do terrorist networks look like? How do they operate? How do they communicate? How can we analyse them? What are their weaknesses? How can we build counter-measures and ultimately how can we disrupt and dismantle them?' - Valdis Krebs, ‘Disrupting Networks of Terrorist Cells’ [ ]

'You have to empower the fringes if you are going to be able to make decisions faster than the bad guy... You can’t do it through hierarchical systems. It just takes too long... We need a network to fight the network' - Lt. Col. Robert Wardell

In the first weeks after September 11, the media fixed on the advanced information technologies putatively used by al-Qaeda to manage its fighting cells: satphones, mobile data transfer, the internet and, to conceal messages as they traversed the network, strong <cryptography> and <steganography>. One report even suggested that the hijackers had checked out of a hotel before the attack because it couldn’t provide them with sufficient bandwidth.

This intense, early focus on the technologies and techniques al-Qaeda used in its communications is significant. Whilst it might have been ludicrous to cast this ‘terror organisation’ as a band of technophiles, American military strategists have been arguing for some time that terrorist cells do have something in common with the ‘network society’: their use of non-hierarchical, ‘distributed’ command structures to produce sturdy and flexible organisations. That, regardless of whether al-Qaeda operatives rely on the stone-age tech of face-to-face (F2F) communications, or use wireless-enabled PDAs to decrypt porn-stego’d communiqués over an air-WAN, makes it a ‘networked’ organisation proper – at least in the eyes of the American military. Two months ago, at a tech conference in Washington DC, the special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went so far as to call al-Qaeda ‘a dispersed enemy who basically is operating on a <peer-to-peer> system, at a very low level.’ That same peer-to-peer technology, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Wardell told technologists, could in future be of ‘significant value’ to the military – who, he explained, intended to enlist the architects of peer-to-peer networks like <Gnutella> and <Morpheus> in the ‘War Against Terror.’

The notion of terrorist groups as ‘networks’, collections of interlinked ‘cells’, is not, of course, new. Among the first revolutionaries to organise via the cell-structure was Louis Auguste Blanqui, a socialist of the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic era. The basic principle behind cell organisation is simple: by dividing an organisation into many multi-person groups, and compartmentalising information inside each cell as needed, the greater organisation is more likely to survive if one of its components is compromised. Anarchists and revolutionaries in Russia, Ireland, France, Germany, and Switzerland adopted cell organisation in the 1880s, as did the communist movement in the late 19th century. Internet architecture, however, represents an obvious new paradigm with which to rethink such structures: ‘cells’ become ‘nodes’ in a network, and all the concepts, techniques and technologies used to treat the relations between those nodes become available to study the organisation of resistance. (One <diagram> of the connections between the people alleged to have been instrumental in the September 11 attack is even configured as a classic <distributed network>, complete with three or four interconnections between each node – a <‘redundancy’ level of three or four> in network engineering terms). Key amongst these concepts is that of ‘peer-to-peer’ architectures which, in building useful systems out of large numbers of intermittently connected machines, realise the radically distributed, non-hierarchical potential of the net.

By couching the organisation of resistance in terms it understands and has expertise in, the US military is continuing an ongoing process of finding ways to respond to and defend itself against what are called ‘asymmetric’ opponents. Asymmetry and ‘asymmetric warfare’ are notions which first surfaced in the 1995 US military publication Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces of the United States, and quickly became the key way of understanding first terrorism, and then so-called ‘anti-capitalist’ or ‘anti-globalisation’ protest. Organisationally speaking, US military thinkers have identified striking similarities between ‘shadowy terrorist groups’, nongovernmental organisations and activists – despite their radically different aetiologies and aims. What interests and terrifies them in equal measure is the perception that such ‘post-national actors’ are leaderless (though how the ‘bin Laden network’ fits that bill is not clear) self-organising, decanted/distributed and non-hierarchical.

These are the essential qualities of the asymmetrical opponent, forced to fragment and organise dynamically as a consequence of fighting a far stronger enemy. As US Navy Vice-Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski, former head of the Naval War College in Newport, says, such fragmentation helps ‘offset a disadvantage in numbers, technology, or position.’ Asymmetric networks are hard to target, Cebrowski argues, ‘because they have few formal procedures to disrupt and little physical infrastructure to destroy. They are hard to infiltrate because they are held together by close personal ties and intensely shared values.’

In 1997, the Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review was already warning that ‘US dominance in the conventional military arena may encourage adversaries to [. . .] use asymmetric means to attack our forces and interests overseas and Americans at home.’ That same year, in a military paper entitled ‘Strategic Horizons: The Military Implications of Alternative Futures,’ Dr Steven Metz developed this notion of the threat to America of attacks from disproportionate – disproportionately weak – powers, levied in areas in which the country was vulnerable. This report prefigured the uncannily prescient 1999 Joint Strategy Review, <‘Asymmetric Approaches to Warfare’>, which defined asymmetric attacks as ‘attempts to circumvent or undermine US strengths while exploiting US weaknesses using methods that differ significantly from the United States’ expected method of operations... [Such attacks] generally seek a major psychological impact, such as shock or confusion, that affects an opponent’s initiative, freedom of action or will... Asymmetric approaches often employ innovative, non-traditional tactics, weapons or technologies and can be applied at all levels of warfare – strategic, operational and tactical – and across the spectrum of military operations.’

September 11, of course, represented just such an attack: a likely recrimination, or at least result of, US foreign policy, exploiting inherent weaknesses in civilian defence. The point that September 11 will have driven home to the military is one that Metz was hinting at back in ’97: America’s enemies have no means of ‘symmetric’ redress, they are unable to fight their oppression head on. Although industrial and civil action would likely prove more effective forms of asymmetric resistance, it is not difficult to see how ‘terrorist’ action can appear like the only way to articulate change in the face of massive, and often martial, subjugation. Given this, it seems that more September 11s will have to happen if the US/Western military-industrial complex continues to consolidate its dominance, narrowing avenues for ‘symmetric’ response whilst failing to provide for significant representation for developing countries in forums such as the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF. There has been an ostentatious lack of military symmetry in the global scene since the <Gulf War>. It is anachronistic now to speak of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ warfare, especially since all asymmetric action is couched as ‘illegitimate’ (pace the ‘unlawful combatants’ airlifted out of Afghanistan to face the War on Terror’s first showtrial).

September 11 is the most potent example so far of what Metz calls ‘negative asymmetry’, a weak opponent’s threat to America’s vulnerabilities. And as Metz points out, most Department of Defence thinking about asymmetry has focused on its negative form. But what Lt. Col. Wardell’s comments to those gathered technologists in Washington clearly reveal are fresh attempts to formulate a positive asymmetric warfare strategy, which might allow the US military to deploy its own form of attack against its opponents. What this might entail, Metz suggests, ‘is acting, organising and thinking differently from opponents to maximise relative strengths, exploit opponents’ weaknesses or gain greater freedom of action.’

The question that the military is now turning over is whether the right IT – to whit, a distributed, non-hierarchical communications system – can give the armed forces enough of the adaptability and speed evinced by anti-globo/pro-terror groups to send America vectoring towards what is unblinkingly called ‘full spectrum dominance’ on the global stage. (The logic must go something like this: the organisation of resistance/terror looks like a peer-to-peer network so if we organise ourselves through such a network, will we be able both to react to future sorties and to mount our own attacks against this distributed enemy.) Certainly they want to believe it can. Of course, it is essentially impossible (at least, for members of the public) to verify any of these supposed qualities of al-Qaeda’s structuring protocols: one can never see far enough through to the ‘real’ organisation (if there is such a thing) underneath the media surface. But what is of importance here is the US military’s very real identification with the ‘nature of the beast’: its conviction that to defeat the enemy, you have to become like it (or, to be more faithful to this case, what you see in it, a reflection of what you fear and wish for in yourself). And there is an important and constant refraction here between America and its technologies, and ‘terrorists’ and theirs; TCP/IP, the routing protocol at the centre of the net’s operation, is a US innovation leading out of work begun during the Cold War, and it is still absolutely fundamental to all of the key communications technologies running over the network today. In ‘learning lessons’ from the September 11 actors’ use of that network, and its principles, the US military is in fact re-reading the work it sponsored at the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) in the light of the way it has been incorporated by its very own enemies.

But what does the American military mean when it says it wants to become more distributed, less hierarchical, more dynamic? In the policy document Joint Vision 2020 – produced again before September 11 – the US army showed how much it has leaned on research into businesses like Wal-Mart and Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, and the theories that underlie their management and organisational practices, in conceiving for itself a new, distributed form. The paper is shot through with the business jargon smelling strongly of the likes of Andersen Consulting, or Accenture as they’re now known. It argues for a flexible, adaptable joint force able to ‘react to changes in the strategic environment and the adaptations of potential enemies, to take advantage of new technologies, and to account for variations in the pace of change. The source of that flexibility is the synergy of the core competencies of the individual Services, integrated into the joint team. These challenges will require a Total Force composed of well-educated, motivated, and competent people who can adapt to the many demands of future joint missions. The transformation of the joint force to reach full spectrum dominance rests upon information superiority as a key enabler and our capacity for innovation.’

The technologists at that Washington peer-to-peer conference will be pleased to know the armed forces are positioning to make P2P such a central component of future warfare strategy. Such a move would certainly go some way to plugging the gaping void left by the withdrawal of venture capital from the communications industries. And in fact the Groove team, led by the father of GroupWare and former Lotus Development Corporation guru, Ray Ozzie, have already begun work with the US military. Groove styles itself as ‘a unique decentralised computing platform that erases technical and organisational boundaries, provides resiliency across disrupted networks, and speeds decision-making by bringing rich, just-in-time context to everyday collaborative processes.’ Essentially, it is Ozzie’s Lotus Notes tools for work groups, with a peer-ised file-sharing system.

Speaking at a Forrester Research Strategy Forum last November, Ozzie explained the possible uses of systems like Groove for the military. ‘Over the last few years, there have suddenly appeared a bunch of new organisational forms out there – not just in terrorist networks – that present problems for hierarchical organisations. In the governmental context, for example with the WTO, there’s the Direct Action Network, which uses swarming techniques to produce resistance to a centrally organised police force. The terrorists use cellular structures. Arguably you cannot take a strictly hierarchical organisation and deal with these forms. The best thing to do, in my view, is to embrace the network – the notion of the network. And there are a number of people that believe that the organisation that has the most advanced use of the network form will conquer, will win.’

What is not clear is whether the military has deluded itself into believing that buying software like Groove will somehow reformulate it as a non-hierarchical organisation. If so, it might be a little disappointed in the effects of its P2P installation. In focusing on technology in its analyses of the al-Qaeda power structure or (to a far lesser extent) those of the anti-globalisation movement, the US military establishment is failing to follow through its earlier analysis of the socio-economic roots of asymmetry. No one, after all, could believe that information technology creates ‘terrorism’ or anti-globalisation – US and UK foreign policy and global corporate expansionism are far more potent in this respect, although it is interesting that a technology so suited to organising such actions should arise – as product of the US military-industrial complex, no less – at exactly the moment it is needed by the resistance. The military is forgetting the extent to which the organisational structure of its asymmetric enemies is a reflection of the social and political pressures those enemies are under, that their communications practice is a consequence of economic impoverishment, of political marginalisation. They are forgetting that such organisations involve single individuals, operating as trusted and trusting ‘nodes’ within their networks, each ready to die to articulate their aims.

Michael Macedonia, the US army’s chief scientist for simulated training, says the army envisions using its P2P systems in wireless networks on the ground for mission rehearsal. Another idea, according to Wardell, is to let soldiers establish ad hoc computer connections with information sources without getting bogged down in multiple security levels and incompatible software systems. These seem projects likely to succeed, but they are, after all, not particularly radical uses of a technology which is now thirty years old. As for the more radical notion of peer-ising entire elements of the fighting force, it seems unlikely and unpalatable in equal measure. Without ideologically committed ‘warriors’ – each actor thinking for himself, acting for himself, taking responsibility for the consequences of his actions – any network that was created would remain effectively impotent. Is the US military really ready to do what is necessary to power its network: give each soldier the responsibility of acting as an individual?

Perhaps that is exactly what it intends. If the military establishment can convince America that the state of absolute exception which is now the rule in the Homeland necessitates the production of a military network in which each member has absolute autonomy, it will have won a decisive battle in dematerialising military power by giving it perfect ‘plausible deniability’ for any activities it wants to undertake outside of the usual structures. Lest you think we are now in the realms of science fiction, consider this: Lt. Col. Shoyster, the head of MPRI, America’s largest military advisory firm, has recently suggested that one key advantage of military campaigns conducted by a private sector firm is that they don’t raise the same kind of political controversy as would, for example, aid from the US government itself. His suggestion gave substance to the idea that the military sector could be using mercenaries to train armies in countries where governmental intervention would be politically unpopular, precisely in order to gain deniability as and when required.

A ‘distributed’ fighting force, tasked with defending Homeland Security, could have just such a status. Modelled after an enemy we can barely make out, but whose form and structure we seem to know curiously well through our own business, management, and technologies, this would truly be the Army After Next, the perfect fighting force for waging the permanent war. And who, we must ask, would it be fighting? As this article is written, preparations are underway for a new round of anti-globalistion protests – this time in New York and against the World Economic Forum, and we are witnessing again the disturbing tendency to draw equivalencies between critics of the WEF and those who destroyed the WTC. ‘In the post-9-11 world of law enforcement,’ Richard Esposito has written in the Village Voice, ‘cops see these brick throwers and car burners as almost al-Qaeda-like, down to their transnational wandering, their leaders’ wealthy backgrounds, and their fundamentalist message.’ ‘New York will not be terrorised,’ the New York Daily News has declared. ‘We already know what that’s like. Chant your slogans. Carry your banners. Wear your gas masks. Just don’t test our patience. Because we no longer have any.’ In a piece entitled ‘Econ Summit Brings Own Terror Threat’, the New York Post’s Steve Dunleavy has interviewed New York deputy police chief John Timoney. ‘There are some very serious bad guys out there,’ Timoney said, ‘and I am not talking about Osama bin Laden. We are talking about pretty sophisticated bad guys.’ Here, from a relatively high level within the establishment, yet another suggestion that anti-globalisation activists could be as dangerous as international terrorists.

This presentation of political assembly as terrorist threat is a threat that the police ‘know what they have to do’ to deal with (New York Post, 1/18/02) – is particularly terrifying. Post S-11, the US media has largely rewritten the history of globalisation protest: ‘window-smashing, flame-tossing spectacles’ (Daily News, 1/24/02), ‘violent mayhem’ (New York Post, 1/20/02), ‘radical protesters rampag[ing] through the streets… clashing with police’ (Daily News, 1/18/02) and ‘wild protest melees’ (New York Times, 1/25/02). This kind of blurring between dissent and ‘terror’ is the first proof of that term’s radical insufficiency (or its complete utility?) as a banner under which to wage global war. Any political action, especially in a context in which laws are rewritten or cast aside each day according to whim, can be regarded as ‘terrorism’; and in a global scene in which asymmetry is the rule, the close proximity in the military mind of the strategies of asymmetric warfare to those of anti-globalisation protest, of distributed terrorist infrastructures to the structures assumed by the new resistance, is potentially disastrous. Such similarities in structure, after all, will only be taken to show an equivalence of intent, and to justify an equivalence in treatment – indeed, we have already seen the comparisons drawn between al-Qaeda’s anti-US-imperialist views and protesters’ so-called ‘anti-globalisation’ ones. It is in this uncomfortable atmosphere that some major organisations have announced secession from future protests. ‘We have been stepping back and taking stock of our practical tactics,’ says Ruckus Society director John Sellers, whose group teaches protest techniques; Mobilization for Social Justice also pulled out of the World Bank protests even before the meeting was called off, and the Sierra Club removed its anti-Bush ‘W Watch’ column from its website in a show of national unity – a move met by derision from other advocacy groups.

Such nervousness is understandable. One of the most worrying effects of mapping the discourse of the network over the structure of protest and resistance is the extensibility it lends to defining who does and doesn’t lie within the ‘network of terror’. Resistance’s original organic metaphor – the cell structure – suggests clear limits: each cell has a membrane outside which individuals are no longer implicated. In a peer-to-peer network – a network of individuals – that is no longer the case: as in the proverbial ‘six degrees of separation’, each of us is potentially networkable at any moment to any other of us; and at the moment of mounting any kind of resistance each of us is, therefore, forming a potential link to a network of resistance which is isomorphic at many points with the ‘network of terror’. At what point will the establishment begin to regard the two as imbricated, or even as one and the same thing? It is true that not all protest is currently cast as ‘terror’, and that not all protestors are cast as ‘terrorists’, but as we have seen there are worrying precedents suggesting that such equations may not be far off. The danger of a truly peer-ised fighting force is that it would have the latitude to decide who did and did not fall within the ‘terror network’. To an extent, the military, backed by the media establishment, already feels comfortable in making such decisions: Time Magazine recently reported on Jemaah Islamiah, ‘a South-East Asian version of al-Qaeda with possible links to Osama bin Laden’s group’, and since the wind-down of military operations in Afghanistan, Bush’s administration has announced its focus on ‘the rest of al-Qaeda’: small, self-contained terrorist operational units that the administration says exist ‘in as many as 60 countries.’ ‘The good news is that, for the first time, we have a real, international intelligence network,’ a White House official said in December. ‘The ongoing, evolving story coming out of the war in Afghanistan is the importance of cooperation in understanding where al-Qaeda is.’ It is precisely such rhetoric that is allowing the US to go to war against the non-state actors that it perceives, not without reason, to be the only remaining threat to the ‘full spectrum dominance’ it has made its open aim.

<Cryptography> Cryptography is the science of information security. The word is derived from the Greek kryptos, meaning hidden. Cryptography includes techniques such as microdots, merging words with images, and other ways to hide information in storage or transit. Today, however, cryptography is most often associated with scrambling plaintext (ordinary text, sometimes referred to as cleartext) into ciphertext (a process called encryption), then back again (known as decryption). Individuals who practice in this field are known as cryptographers

<Steganography> Historically, steganography (literally ‘covered writing’) has involved physically hiding messages. Herodotus relates how a messenger had his head shaved and then had a secret message written on his scalp. With newly grown hair, he traveled to the targeted destination where his head again shaved revealed the message. In the virtual world, steganograhy secretes messages in apparently innocuous GIF, BMP, JPEG, or WAV files

<Peer-to-Peer> A type of network in which each workstation has equivalent capabilities and responsibilities. This differs from client/server architectures, in which some computers are dedicated to serving the others

<Gnutella & Morpheus>Peer-to-peer filesharing systems. Visit [] and []


<’Asymmetric Approaches to Warfare’> Pritchard, Kenneth H. ‘Asymmetric Approaches to Warfare.’ Officer Review, vol. 39, no. 1, July 1999, p. 11For more asymmetric papers, see [

<Gulf War>The National Defense Panel (NDP), a senior-level group Congress commissioned to assess long-term US defense issues in 1997, had the following to say about the Gulf: ‘We can assume that our enemies and future adversaries have learned from the Gulf War. They are unlikely to confront us conventionally with mass armor formations, air superiority forces, and deep-water naval fleets of their own, all areas of overwhelming US strength today. Instead, they may find new ways to attack our interests, our forces and our citizens. They will look for ways to match their strengths against our weaknesses.’5 The NDP specifically mentioned danger of massive US casualties caused by enemy weapons of mass destruction to delay or complicate US access to a region and inflict casualties, attacks on US electronic and computer-based information systems, use of mines and missiles along straits and littorals, and terrorism

JJ King <jamie AT> is a contributing editor of Mute, writer and singer in Snakes

Original photographs from the US Marine Corps website [] redeployed by Damian Jaques